There is a scene in The Horse and His Boy, one of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, in which the fugitive, Aravis, explains why she fled her homeland. As she begins, she switches to a style of speaking that is florid, poetic and quite captivating – for in her country, children are taught how to tell stories, just like English children are taught how to write essays. “The difference”, Lewis tells us, “is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
It is hard to disagree with Lewis that, as a medium for communicating ideas, the traditional student essay is fundamentally unexciting. One issue is the requirement for “formal” language at all times – even though academic writers who succeed in engaging with their readers often do so by writing texts that are lively, enthusiastic and frequently irreverent, encompassing the odd anecdote, colloquialism and venture into the personal.
The standard essay structure is an even bigger problem. Its thesis statement and topic sentences act like spoilers, so the reader is afforded little suspense or surprise. And this formulaic pattern, far from making standardised marking easier, may actually undermine fair grading because bored assessors might start assigning grades erratically or arbitrarily.
Moreover, the thesis statement can actually be the enemy of critical enquiry because it straitjackets the writer into a line of argument that has to be defended to the death, blithely bulldozing – or simply ignoring – any tentative “yes, but…” that might get in the way. This is not a trivial issue. The tyranny of being forced to declare one’s position pervades our culture, from the school debating societies to our adversarial parliamentary system, where admitting that the opposing side may have a point is political anathema. This approach is potentially anti-intellectual – for when critical thinking is applied to most issues, it becomes apparent that there are multiple viable perspectives, which can both diverge and converge.
Is there not a case for replacing the traditional essay with something more exploratory and open-ended – perhaps akin to a research project? From an early stage, students could be trained to become more aware of issues such as bias, limitation, validity and reliability; how to select, interrogate and categorise their data; how to connect findings with theory. The structure of a project write-up allows for a deeper consideration of these underlying areas, and liberates the student from the imperative to follow a single cohesive line of reasoning. Reality, after all, does not follow laws of cohesion and – to cite Chekhov – it can be more illuminating to pose questions rather than to purport to have answers.
Another fundamental problem with the essay is that it imposes a rigid, one-size-fits-all framework on to every conceivable topic. Not everything is suited to this linear, verbal model: alternatives could be borrowed from other disciplines and methods of assessment. There might be cases where diagrams and annotated illustrations would express ideas and the relationships between them with greater clarity and succinctness. In other instances, submitting work in the form of – for example – a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary might reveal a huge amount of creative potential, originality and insight. Could the message, and the student’s own leanings, occasionally be allowed to determine the most appropriate medium?
Undergraduates now are predominantly digital natives, while the essay comes from a tradition of ink on paper, fixed and immutable. Intellectually and stylistically restrictive, it discourages experimentation with the rich possibilities of communication and does not always serve either the topic or the writer adequately.
Does the academy’s reluctance to embrace radically alternative forms reflect a lack of courage? Possibly. But in a dynamic multimedia age, where so much is in a state of flux and uncertainty, we should be looking beyond the static forms that bored C. S. Lewis more than 60 years ago and at least considering the daunting but exhilarating new possibilities.
Karen Harris is a tutor of English for academic purposes at the University of the Arts London.